30 December 2011

Dr Who and the King's Dragon

I followed the ninth Doctor adventures pretty faithfully (easy to do with six books), but lost interest in the novels based on the new series three books into the tenth Doctor's adventures.  (Easy to do with crap like The Stone Rose and The Resurrection Casket.)  Since then, I've picked them up only occasionally, and The King's Dragon is the first eleventh Doctor adventure I've had cause to read.

I rather liked it.  The Doctor, Amy, and Rory land on a medieval alien planet, which is supposed to be friendly and democratic, but turns out to be rude and monarchical.  So, investigations begin and trouble ensues.  Where The King's Dragon particularly shines is its characterization; all three characters sound perfectly like their television counterparts.  Indeed, I wish the characters had been written this well on television.  The novel takes place during Series 5, between "The Vampires of Venice" and "The Hungry Earth," and it fits perfectly, especially in its depiction of Amy and Rory's relationship, which is still kinda uncertain as Rory tries to figure out how he relates to Amy with this Doctor fellow around.

Plus, Una McCormack's writing sparkles as it always does, the power of the enamour is suitably creepy, it has a nice emphasis on the storytelling act, and there are lots of good jokes and witty lines.  The good sort of standalone Doctor Who adventure, and thus the best sort in general.

29 December 2011

Dr Who and the Cultural Context

Over the past couple months, I've read a few Doctor Who-related books, so over the next few days, I'll be catching up on reviews of those:

About Time 4: The Unauthorized Guide to Doctor Who, 1975-1979 / Seasons 12 to 17
by Lawrence Miles & Tat Wood

In the ever-confusing history of the About Time series, this was actually the second written.  As a result, the series is clearly still growing into the format that it would perfect with About Time 1 and 2, covering the 1960s stories.  Still, this one is pretty good.

I found it hard going at first, but once we got into Season 14 or so the book began to pick up a bit and yield more interesting insights.  I wonder if this is because Miles and Wood obviously both love the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, and so the analysis often tends to boil down to "they got it just right"; perhaps there's more for them to sink their teeth into with Graham Williams's often misfiring producership.  This is also the part that sees the "Critique" essays being split into "Prosecution" and "Defense," with one author writing each one (but they don't say which is which).  Oddly, even though I don't really like Season 17, I found myself agreeing with the defense more often than not-- the prosecution's arguments often boiled down to "you can't do X in Doctor Who," when the case wasn't that you couldn't do X, but that X just hadn't been done well.

It's a good read, as all the About Time volumes have been, but strangely, my main takeaway has been a desire to watch The Invasion of Time and The Armageddon Factor again, of all things.  Now that's some good Doctor Who. (No, really.)

27 December 2011

Victorian Controversies, 1882-83: Scientific Materialism

I didn't actually read this novel for my "Victorian controversies" class, but instead read it independently to write a paper on it for a philosophy of science seminar I was taking, but it fits right in, so here it is...

Heart and Science: A Story of the Present Time
by Wilkie Collins

What everyone, even the defenders of this much-maligned later novel from Collins, feels compelled to talk about is its role as an anti-vivisectionist work; they especially like to focus on Dr. Benjulia, the creepy vivisection-practicing anatomist. But Benjulia and vivisection only occupy a scant few chapters of the totality of Heart and Science. They are but single examples of the novel's larger discomfort with science in general. Heart and Science is afraid of the way the scientist looks at people, fearing that her scientific training makes her see people as objects for her use in experiments.

Yes, I said "her"-- Heart and Science is a positive anomaly in the Victorian period, a novel that features a woman scientist. Mrs. Gallilee is a fascinating character, a villain through and through, as she attempts to steal the inheritance that is due her niece for herself and her daughters. But like in Collins's The Woman in White, the villain is more interesting than the heroes; this novel is particularly bad, as Ovid Vere and Carmina Graywell are "sympathetic" to the point of paralysis and insipidness. But Mrs. Gallilee-- Mrs. Gallilee is utterly fascinating to read about (as is Dr. Benjulia). To a modern reader, most of Collins's critiques of the scientist's vision fall flat, so one is left with a very interesting character. Maybe a Lex Luthor for her time? (I suspect many Victorian readers would have found the critiques ridiculous, too. On the other hand, many modern feminist philosophers of science probably agree with Collins, which is all the more worrying.)

The thing that Collins seems unable to bring himself to admit is that Mrs. Gallilee is actually the smartest person in the novel. For all that the narrator comments that she doesn't understand human emotions, she actually proves more capable of recognizing people's emotional states than anyone else; she figures out who is in love with who when no one else has noticed, and she uses this knowledge to manipulate people, often successfully. (She grows less successful as the novel goes on though, for reasons I can't quite pin down, but think have to do with the people she's manipulating acting less selfishly.)

She also is the only character with any appreciation for something beyond her immediate circumstances; Ovid and Carmina (and the author, implicitly) sneer at her for her interest in the upper atmosphere, dinosaurs, and more, but I was on her side in those exchanges. What do they have that's more interesting than dinosaurs? Collins never shows me anything. Mrs. Gallilee's position reminds me a lot of John Tyndall's transcendental materialism, which was often attacked by people who didn't understand it. (Tyndall gave his famous Belfast Address in 1874, less than a decade before Heart and Science.) But I'd rather look on the universe with breathless awe like Tyndall than stay closeminded like Ovid and Carmina. Heart and Science is a fascinating look at late Victorian attitudes toward science, but you shouldn't believe a word of it.

26 December 2011

Victorian Controversies, 1876: Zionism

Daniel Deronda
by George Eliot

George Eliot wrote one of my favorite-ever novels, Adam Bede, so it was with some anticipation that I opened up Daniel Deronda. The opening pages didn't disappoint; the first chapter, where we see Gwendolen Harleth at the gambling tables, is absolutely exquisite, an utterly captivating use of point-of-view as we come closer and closer to the odd and unsettling sight of a woman gambling, and meet our two main characters, Gwendolen and Daniel.

From there, their backstories unfold before us in parallel, and then their forwardstories. It's a common truism that despite who the novel is named after, the Gwendolen sections are more interesting. It's true that they are very good-- still no one can do interiority to the extent that George Eliot can, and the bit on the boat is utterly riveting especially-- but I loved the sections where Deronda began to associate with Mordecai and his associates. Everyone knows that Deronda is the "Jewish novel," but that's part of the problem, too. The point isn't the Zionist discussion themselves, but the real sense that Deronda is beginning to experience something bigger than himself, coming into contact with a larger world full of big, important ideas. Also, knowing that this is the Jewish novel preempts certain revelations from having their full effect.

The novel does get kinda weird, though. The narrative seems to condemn Gwendolen for being unable to dedicate her own life to something bigger than herself, whereas it praises Deronda for dedicating himself to Zionism. This is weird for two reasons. First, dedicating herself to a cause isn't really the solution to Gwendolen's marital woes. Second, Daniel lucks into a cause-- had he not had a secret Jewish ancestry, he would have been just as aimless as Gwendolen, if not moreso. It feels massively unfair for Daniel and the narrator to condemn Gwendolen for her inability to see the big picture, when she's never been permitted access to the art museum. (Okay, that metaphor is stretched too much.) The narrator comments:
That was the sort of crisis which was at this moment beginning in Gwendolen's small life: she was for the first time feeling the pressure of a vast mysterious movement, for the first time being dislodged from her supremacy in her own world, and getting a sense that her horizon was but a dipping onward of an existence with which her own was revolving.
Gwendolen must be made small (humiliated, even) to discover something bigger than herself... but Deronda didn't have to be. Why is that?

There are similar moments of incongruence throughout the novel, such as when Daniel condemns his own mother, seemingly unfairly to me, but not the narrator, or when a musician declares that musicians are so good at things that they could advise politicians, which strikes me as far-fetched but no one quibbles with him.

The thing I wonder about Eliot is if we take her at face value too much, just because she's a Victorian. We assume that the writer and the novel are aligned in perspective with the protagonist and the narrator. We wouldn't do this if she was a 20th-century writer; it would be almost expected that the narrator must not represent the author. So why do we do that here? As with the ending of Adam Bede, where Adam seems to think it's okay for his wife to give up her vocation, I don't think we should. I think we are supposed to disagree with Adam, with Daniel, with the musician, with the narrator even.

But that's hard to prove, especially since I suspect it might be rooted in the fact that I love Eliot's writing so much-- and so I want her to be like me, and I want her politics and philosophy to be like mine. Because surely she can't believe that it's right to humiliate Gwendolen that way. I don't.

23 December 2011

Victorian Controversies, 1868: Imperialism

The next three days, I'll be talking about three more works of "Victorian controversies," derived from my reading for the graduate seminar I just finished taking...

The Moonstone
by Wilkie Collins

I've previously read two novels by Wilkie Collins, No Name and The Woman in White, the first of which was good and the second was brilliant.  I picked up The Moonstone on the strength of those, but this class caused it to jump ahead on my reading list a bit.  The Moonstone falls somewhere between the two of those in terms of quality.  It's great, just not as great as The Woman in White.

Like The Woman in White (not to mention the later Dracula), the conceit of The Moonstone is that the only way for the characters to understand the events that have just happened is to look at them objectively, which requires obtaining statements from everyone involved and assembling them into a narrative.  This means there's a varied set of voices, the best of which is clearly the first one, narrated from the perspective of Betteredge, the head servant.  His section is just a joy to read-- not only is it funny, but there's twists and turns a-plenty, and Collins shows that he's still one of the best writers of "suspense."  None of the other narrators are quite as good (except for the evangelist Drusilla Clack), but the mystery unfolds itself in enjoyable fashion regardless, and the ultimate resolution is indeed fairly surprising.  (Sergeant Cuff doesn't really ever get to narrate, but he's still awesome; I'd read a series of books about Cuff and Betteredge solving crimes together.  Heck, I'd write it.)

21 December 2011

Faster than a DC Bullet: Lucifer, Part III: Children and Monsters

Lucifer: Children and Monsters

Writer: Mike Carey
Artists: Peter Gross, Ryan Kelly, Dean Ormston
Colorists: Daniel Vozzo, Marguerite Van Cook
Letterer: Fiona Stephenson

In Devil in Gateway, Lucifer got some kinda paper from the Silver City. In this book, he uses it, opening up a gateway that draws people to his bar for reasons they don't fully understand, but more importantly, allowing him to travel where he needs to go next. For you see, Lucifer has a plan... just not one that we are privy to. In "The House of Windowless Rooms," Lucifer travels into the Japanese afterworld to get his wings back.

This is where I started to get bored with Lucifer. Honestly, the premise that the universe contains innumerable different belief systems, all true, doesn't do much for me. It worked in The Sandman, which often treated the idea fancifully, but Lucifer takes them all seriously-- and you can't take them all seriously, because they're not compatible. I think it makes the story of Lucifer have a whole lot less impact if he's not rebelling against the Lord, but one of a countless number of gods. Lucifer doesn't really treat them as belief systems, just complicated fantasy worlds into which our protagonist travels. And our protagonist does not have to be Lucifer, he could jut be any old grouchy wizard and the story would be exactly the same.

The other reason that "The House of Windowless Rooms" didn't work for me is because it's the point where Lucifer's all-knowingness became too much. To travel into the Japanese afterlife, he must travel as a mortal... but it makes no difference. From twelfth page, where he blind the gatekeeper, it's obvious the despite being mortal, he still knows everything about everything and thus he's never in any danger. Plus, everyone he goes up against is dumb-- and that doesn't make him seem smart. You just know he's gonna win no matter what. What ever happened to suspense?

Meanwhile, his piano bar comes under attack from gross demon things, and this did work for me, since it felt like there was actual danger. Mazikeen and the human waitress are vulnerable-- very vulnerable-- and so there was actually some suspense. Also the sassy magician woman from Devil in the Gateway makes a surprise reappearance, and I liked her.

The second story here, the titular "Children and Monsters," brings back Elaine, the girl with ghostly grandmothers from last volume. I liked her too, so it's a welcome reappearance. Then there's a lot of strange mythological stuff and Lucifer knows everything about everything and the Heavenly Host invade Los Angeles, but turn out to be pretty lame. Elaine made me care some, but I didn't care a lot. It's kinda like one of those Star Trek or Doctor Who episodes where everyone is always talking about a ray and it doesn't mean anything because the ray does whatever it needs to at that moment, except with a gross version of a vaguely Christian mythology.

But, the ending. Hmmmm... This was the moment where it became clear why this was a story about the Lucifer, and not Lucifer the Grouchy Amoral Wizard. So I'm intrigued enough to keep on going, at least.

20 December 2011

Faster than a DC Bullet: Lucifer, Part II: Devil in the Gateway

Lucifer: Devil in the Gateway

Writer: Mike Carey
Artists: Scott Hampton, Chris Weston, James Hodgkins, Warren Pleece, Dean Ormston
Colorist: Daniel Vozzo
Letterers: Todd Klein, Ellie de Ville

Since we last saw Lucifer in Murder Mysteries, mulling over the injustice of the Lord, some 13 billion years have passed. More than that if Murder Mysteries takes place before the creation of the universe, which it probably does. Since then, Lucifer has rebelled against the Lord, been consigned to Hell, given up Hell (its dominion passing into the hands of a pair of angels), and set up in a piano bar in L.A. because, you know, what else would you do? His former consort, Mazikeen, works there with him.

And he'd probably be there, enjoying himself just fine, if Amendiel, an angel himself, didn't pop into Lucifer's bar, Lux, from the Silver City to ask Lucifer to undertake a mission that the Lord can't be seen to directly intervene in. In "The Morningstar Option," someone's granting wishes, or something. It's all very vague and cosmological. Lucifer recruits a human girl who tied into the phenomenon and strikes out to put a stop to it. The story actually reminded me a lot of "The Thessaliad" in The Sandman Presents: Taller Tales in that Lucifer, like Thessaly, knows the ways these kinds of stories work, and therefore undertakes the story in line with the way it should go.

In the second story here, "A Six-Card Spread," Lucifer heads off the Germany to get another former angel to read some cards for him. Of course, there's trouble afoot, what with a bunch of racist thugs running around and the cards themselves gaining intelligence. And Lucifer's not the only person after them... (Who would have guessed that?)

In both good and bad ways, these remind me of the early Sandman stories. There are big, neat ideas being played with. But there's also a protagonist for whom no problem ever seems to exist. As in the Sandman stories, I found myself focusing on the minor mortal characters, because they had lives and problems and such. Lucifer only has smugness, and that works much of the time... but not all of it. I found "The Morningstar Option" more interesting, but "A Six-Card Spread" got bogged down in all the mythology of the cards, which I didn't find very interesting. Part of the problem (again, like early Sandman) is that the story often doesn't seem to operate by rules the reader is aware of. Lucifer and all the myriad demons do things when they need to, and that is that.

The villains of "The Morningstar Option" bothered me, in that they were gods from before our universe or something... but that didn't really matter. They could have been wish-granting Star Trek space aliens for all the difference it made to the story being told. Just saying "gods" didn't do a whole lot to make the story different.

The book ends with a short story, "Born with the Dead," about a girl whose dead grandmothers give her advice, which comes in handy when her best friend is murdered. I liked it a lot, probably for the same reason I liked a lot of the Sandman fill-in stories-- it had a protagonist I could identify with. Lucifer's here, but it's a small bit at the end.

Last time I read a Mike Carey take on a Sandman spin-off, I got the excellent The Furies. So far, this isn't bad, but it's no rival either.

19 December 2011

Faster than a DC Bullet: Lucifer, Part I: Murder Mysteries

And here we are, starting off on a new installment of Faster than a DC Bullet! I've survived my journey into Marvel, so it's back into the DC universe with yet another Sandman spin-off. (Man, there are an awful lot of these.) It's time to meet Lucifer...

Neil Gaiman's Murder Mysteries

Original Short Story and Radio Play: Neil Gaiman
Graphic Story Script and Art: P. Craig Russell
Coloring: Lovern Kindzierski
Lettering: Galen Showman

Before reading Lucifer proper, I decided to read Murder Mysteries, a graphic novel by P. Craig Russell adapting a short story by Neil Gaiman. Murder Mysteries tells the story of the first murder-- the first murder, even before Abel and Cain, when one angel killed another. It's not technically part of the Sandman/Lucifer canon, since the short story was standalone, and the comic book was published by Dark Horse, but it's Gaiman writing Lucifer, and the story even refers to its environs as the Silver City, which is the domain of the Lord and his angels in the DC universe as well.

The story revolves around an angel named Raguel, the Vengeance of the Lord. He is assigned by Lucifer, the commander of the Host, to investigate the murder of Carasel, one of the angels working to create the universe. From this point on, the story unfolds like your typical murder mystery. Raguel interviews witnesses, those who knew the victim, those who may have had a motive. There's all the detective stuff, like where he interviews people who don't seem to have a connection to the case, but he and you know better.

(There's also a frame story about a slightly weird 20-something Brit, who visits a female friend of his in L.A. and gets a blow job, hearing the whole story from an old guy on a park bench who is actually Raguel. I like the frame, but I don't quite know how integrates with the main story, especially in the slightly disturbing way that it all ends.)

The great thing about this whole detective story thing is how it ends. Raguel calls everyone together into a room (of course he does): Lucifer; Phanuel, the senior designer of the universe; Saraquel, Carasel's partner; and Zephkiel, the other senior designer, who never leaves his cell in the Silver City. Raguel solves the murder, of course, and enacts the Vengeance of the Lord, distintegrating the murderer. (I'm not going to tell you who the murderer is, but there are some pretty big spoilers here, so be careful if you don't want it ruined.) Lucifer reacts badly to the whole thing. "Perhaps Saraquel was the first to love," Raguel says, "but Lucifer was the first to shed tears." Lucifer begins to wonder if the Lord's will is just after all and flies off. It's a powerful scene.

But what comes is even more powerful. Raguel realizes that there is another murder in the room. The Lord Himself.
"Because nothing occurs without a reason, and all the reasons are Yours."
And just like that, Gaiman , in mixing a murder mystery with theology, creates something new out of both. Because at that moment I realized, There is always another murderer in the room, and that murderer is always the Lord. It's one thing to know this-- certainly Gaiman is not the first person to observe the theological problems that result from having an omnipotent creator managing a universe with injustice in it-- but in depicting it through the generic tropes of murder mysteries, Gaiman makes it real to me all over again.

Just like that. I've sometimes been skeptical of Gaiman. I mean, I liked The Sandman a lot, but it took me half the series before I was finally sold on it. This, though, is powerful, creative stuff.

Of course, it's not all Gaiman. He wrote the story on which this was based, but Russell did all the work not only of illustrating it, but converting it into the format of a comic story. I don't know how much the latter involved, but he does a magnificent job at the former. His art is clean and beautiful, everything a story about angels at the beginning of Creation requires. Russell was also the illustrator for Don McGregor's run on Killraven, but suffice it to say that that never sang like this does.

Lucifer is only a small part of this story, but just like that, you understand so much more about him. Lucifer, the comic series, has a lot to live up to if it's going to follow on from this...

18 December 2011

Audio Catchup: The Bellotron Incident, The Draconian Rage

Bernice Summerfield and the Bellotron Incident (#4.1)
written by Mike Tucker
directed by Gary Russell
starring Lisa Bowerman as Bernice Summerfield, Miles Richardson as Irving Braxiatel, Stephen Wickham as Joseph the Porter, Louise Faulkner as Bev Tarrant
released June 2003

Here it is — the “monster season.” After a successful outing with the Ice Warriors in Season 3’s The Dance of the Dead, in Season 4 of Professor Bernice Summerfield, all four plays star a monster that previously appeared in televised Doctor Who. The first of these, Mike Tucker’s Professor Bernice Summerfield and the Bellotron Incident, brings back the Rutans, the oft-mentioned but little-seen enemies of the Sontarans — they’ve only actually popped up once, in Horror of Fang Rock.

The Bellotron Incident has a potentially interesting premise, but goes about introducing it in a completely uninteresting way. It opens with a native fellow on Bellotron running around and shouting about something uninteresting, then it goes to the crew of the Earth Empire battlecruiser Rites of Passage having a long debate about the Prime Directive, then the captain of the Rites of Passage calls Braxiatel, and finally, 20 minutes in, Bernice Summerfield shows up in the audio drama that bears her name in the title.

( Read more... )

Bernice Summerfield and the Draconian Rage (#4.2)
written by Trevor Baxendale
directed by Edward Salt
starring Lisa Bowerman as Bernice Summerfield, Miles Richardson as Irving Braxiatel
released August 2003 

The second instalment of Professor Bernice Summerfield’s “monster season” is The Draconian Rage by Trevor Baxendale, seeing the return of the Draconians from 1973’s Frontier in Space. The Draconians would go on to appear in many of Big Finish’s audio dramas, many of them in the Bernice series, and even one appearance in the Doctor Who monthly range, 2009’s Paper Cuts. I haven’t seen Frontier in Space, but the Draconians are often lauded for being one of Doctor Who’s rare attempts in creating a “monster” that is no such thing; rather, the idea behind the Draconians is that they are a complex alien species.

The Draconian Rage takes Benny to Draconia itself, a doubly rare experience, given that she is 1) human and 2) female. She’s been brought in to examine an ancient artefact of human origin unearthed by the Draconians on a world where the entire population committed suicide overnight. Of course, some folks are up to no good, and Bernice is soon embroiled in conspiracies and ancient cults and being tortured.

( Read more... )

12 December 2011

What If There's Others on the Ship We Missed? Or if He's Triplets?

Starslip: A Completely Accurate Portrayal of the Future
by Kris Straub

This is the first (and so far only) volume of Starslip to cover what happens after the universe is rest after the battle with Deep Time.  For the most part, it's a return to glory for the strip, which is simplified back to its roots: stuffy curator Memnon Vanderbeam in charge, with ex-pirate Cutter Edgewise and the strange Mr. Jinx at his side.  There's even a couple of new characters, Doctor Dahk Tohrr and Protocol Officer Quine, both of whom are good additions to the cast.  (Engineer Holiday, alas, still has nothing to do besides be the only girl.)

There are some good storylines here: the war games exercises, the locked-room mystery, and especially the ship's hijacking by space pirates when only Quine can stop them. (Kinda like "Starship Mine" from The Next Generation but with a total dweeb instead of Patrick Stewart.) But unfortunately, the spark is not quite at the same level as it was back at the beginning-- with the crew now serving on the exploration cruiser Paradigm instead of the starship museum Fuseli, it is a little more accessible like Straub says... but it's a little bit more generic sci-fi parody.  It never quite goes all the way, though; the opening storyline here is a rewrite of the bonus story at the back of Volume 3, and with Vanderbeam instead of that generic Kirk-parody, it's ten times as funny, so clearly Straub is doing something right.

That's all the Starslip I've got for now, because it's all that's been collected.  I hope Straub releases another one soon, 'cause I'll buy it, even though I don't read it as a webcomic anymore. (I don't read any, actually, because I don't have the time.)

09 December 2011

Too Late, Peacenik! You're Coming Downtown in Our Service Blimp

Starslip Crisis, Volume 3
by Kristofer Straub

Volume 3 of Starslip Crsis claims to be 115 pages, but in actual story, it is only 73 pages long, making it the shortest Starslip volume of them all.  This is one of the strip's weaker periods, something Straub himself acknowledges in his afterword.  The strip began to be overtaken by its own storylines; while the Fuseli crew being at war with their own future was epic and funny, the characters being split up into multiple locations dampened both the drama and the humor.

Straub's afterword is honest and thoughtful, and there are times where I feel like Steven Moffat would do well to read it as he constructs the next twist in his ongoing Doctor Who saga:
I had thought that added storyline complexity would be a challenge to write, which was what I wanted, but it turned out to be easier than I expected. Too easy. Not because I was a genius, but because at a certain depth complexity begins to look arbitrary.  Something readers kicked around was the increasing likelihood that Vanderbeam would actually become so twisted in his time-travelling search for Jovia that he turns into Katarakis. And it's a wonderful idea.
But what bothered me wasn't that it was a wonderful idea -- what was troubling me was knowing that, if I needed to take the story there, I could.  And if I needed to reverse that plot point somehow, I could.... All the plot loops and time travel had made things too straightforward.
When you can reveal that two of your protagonists' daughter was actually their childhood best friend with seeming no consequences, you've fallen into this trap I think.

My complaints about the River Song storyline aside, the slimness of this volume comes from the fact that it ends at the point the universe is reset, jettisoning all that continuity, but keeping the character histories in tact.  (DC Comics, take note.)  Some "extras" take up the slack, but at 40 pages, there's too many of them.  There's some extra strips, which is good, and there's also a few pages of art for a potential monthly Starslip comic, which looks nice, but the formatted-to-take-up-a-lot-of-room script for it shows that it was nowhere near as funny as the original; the whole art museum/critic angle is dropped, and it's a pretty generic and toothless Star Trek parody.  I can't say I'm sorry it didn't come to pass.

08 December 2011

And That Shifts the Context to a Metadiscussion on the Commodification of Power!

Starslip Crisis, Volume 2
by Kristofer Straub

Having finally read (or reread, rather), the first Starslip Crisis collection, I had to go straight into the second-- which is even better than the first.  It's in the second volume where the series hits my favorite sequence, Lord Katarakis's attempted invasion of Earth.  Lord Katarakis has a sculpture called the Spine of the Cosmos, and anyone who sees the work of art will fall under his mental thrall... but only if they fully comprehend it, which requires knowing its context.  So, having acquired the Spine, Katarakis has labored to discover it context.  To do this, he's conquered the planet Cirbozoid, whose inhabitants can parse the meaning of art, but cannot actually understand it.  They're the only ones who can stop him or help him.

So naturally, the only ship that can stop Katarakis is the Fuseli, an luxury-battlecruiser-turned-art-museum, which is co-captained by Memnon Vanderbeam, the best curator in known space, and Cutter Edgewise, somewhat reformed pirate and alcoholic.  Who else can fight against art?  The climactic battle happens halfway through Volume 2, and it's everything I want out of Starslip Crisis: there are jokes, there are some epic twists and unforgettable scenes, and Straub brings them together into one.

07 December 2011

If Something Doesn't Take up at Least a Hundred Pages, and Require Defense in Front of a Board of Experts, It's Not Worth Saying

Starslip Crisis, Volume 1
by Kristofer Straub

Starslip Crisis is one of three webcomics where I've bought the content in print despite being able to get it all on the Internet for free.  (The other two are the epic Narbonic and the sadly short-lived [nemesis].)  It's about an art museum in space, and so it combines two things I like: space opera and theory about how the presentation of a work of art affects its meaning.  A lot of it is science fiction parody, but it just as often has character-based humor, not to mention a lot of jokes at the expense of academia. (In the future, Earth's greatest export is culture, and as a result, its government is a critocracy.)

Starslip Crisis starts out a little rough, I think,  but it quickly settles down, alternating between daily gags and longer storylines.  And when I say "quickly," I mean quickly; about a dozen pages in, and Straub is already starting to hit his groove, with a tale that explains how humans finally stopped robot uprisings by making machines that were smarter than people.  Unlike machines just as smart as people, who wanted to kill humans and rule the cosmos, machines who were smarter were all philanthropists and serve humankind out of free will.  There's also the Firefly parody (the space rogue Zillion speaks a strange dialect where you always drop the last word of every), and the Cirbozoids, the strange species who have a new biological ability every time the crew needs a new way out of a situation, but best of all is the ongoing conflict with Lord Katarakis of the Dreadnox Cluster.

Now, Lord Katarakis is an evil despot who wants to control the universe, and only Captain Vanderbeam and the crew of the Fuseli stand in his way... but he wants to do it through art.  And this means jokes written by someone who has clearly read Walter Benjamin and John Berger.  I don't know who this comic's target audience is, but I'm clearly part of it, and it's amazing.  Kris Straub has good gags, great sci-fi ideas, fun characters, and an epic plot; Starslip Crisis is one of those works where everything just comes together, and I love it.

05 December 2011

Aprill, with His Shoures Soote

The Canterbury Tales
by Geoffrey Chaucer
adapted by Seymour Chwast

Seymour Chwast is a cartoonist who apparently made a splash with a graphic novel version of Dante's Divine Comedy; he's followed it up with this, an adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.  The whole poem is here: every tale and every prologue, condensed down into 143 pages.  It's a bit of an odd project: not innately so, but I'm not sure what Chwast's mission is in adapting The Canterbury Tales, and as a result, I'm not so sure how I think about his adaptation.

As you can see on the cover, the pilgrims are all on motorcycles.  That's the Wife of Bath there; the back cover and the front/endpapers of the book show the rest of the pilgrims on their own bikes. (On the back, we see the Host driving his cycle, with Chaucer in his sidecar!) It's a delightful bit of imagery, and it's maintained throughout the rest of the book; the pilgrims always scoot around on their motorcycles as they tell their tales.  But other than that, these stories are clearly set during medieval times, as everyone's dress and attitude is medieval.  The tales themselves are told pretty straight visually; there's no attempt to transpose them to time or places other than the ones within which they are set.  Why then the motorcycles?  I don't know, but I like them.

The stories themselves are pretty condensed; they're also transposed into modern English, so you're certainly not reading this book for Chaucer's language.  (Which is disappointing sometimes; "The Franklin's Tale" loses almost all of its punch without Dorigen's beautiful ruminations.)  The condensing makes a lot of funny moments, since neither the narrators nor the characters have time to explain things in detail.  Everything is communicated very matter-of-factly, such as when Lady Constance is delivered to the Syrian sultan in "The Man of Law's Tale":
The Sultan's mother was not happy with this marriage. "When we are Christians we will be slaves of the Church and we will have to renounce the Koran."

The truth was that she was an evil reptile.
I feel like I shouldn't like the condensing, but I don't mind it in general (once you get past the language, most of the tales don't feel like they lose a whole lot), and the matter-of-factness often serves to reveal the inherent absurdity of the situations, as above.  It really doesn't work where the original humor of The Canterbury Tales gets undermined (I didn't laugh at this rendition of "The Miller's Tale," for example), but there were a couple other tales that felt flimsy.

The sense of this work primarily functioning as a commentary on the original is enhanced by Chwast's main innovation (since the stories remain unchanged and the art is played straight): what I came to consider the pop-up Chaucer commentary.  Some of the tales would have Chaucer (or occasionally the Host) appear in borderless panels with comments about what was happening.  Chaucer tells us that "The Knight's Tale" is "complete with swash and buckling" while before the Reeve speaks, he begs, "Gentlemen, I don't want my book banned in Birmingham."  When Constance is about to murdered by another lover's mother, the Host asks, "What about all these terrible mothers?"  These were my favorite moments in the book-- though The Canterbury Tales is a classic of English literature, there's no denying that it's a strange and unusual set of tales, often absurd to a modern audience, and playing this up is fun.

I haven't talked about the art much-- it's good.  Chwast has a simply, sketchy style, which works well for the broad stories being told here.  It emphasizes the coarseness of the sexual happenings, which is appropriate: this is The Canterbury Tales, after all.  The lettering, on the other hand, is just a pain to read.

But like I said, I don't know what it's all for.  I liked the commentary moments best, but there's not a lot of it.  The art doesn't put too much of a spin on the story, and though it does its job, it's not particularly nice to look at.  The motorcycles are nice, but they don't go anywhere.  The condensation means you lose the language of Chaucer.  On the whole, it's nice to read, but I want it to be more for some reason.

01 December 2011

Reading Roundup Wrapup: November 2011

Pick of the month: Daniel Deronda by George Eliot. Not as good as Adam Bede, but that just means it's not in the Top Ten of books written in English.  (What are the other nine? Good question.)  A Vision of Modern Science was my pick for up until 30 minutes ago, but I leaned toward Deronda most of the time.  Some of the most magnificent writing, though I think it all peters off near the end.  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Heart and Science were the other standouts-- a good month all around.

All books read:
1. About Time 4: The Unauthorized Guide to Doctor Who, 1975-1979 / Seasons 12 to 17 by Lawrence Miles & Tat Wood
2. Mary Jane by Judith O'Brien
3. Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
4. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn
5. Doctor Who: The King's Dragon by Una McCormack
6. Heart and Science: A Story of the Present Time by Wilkie Collins
7. Mary Jane 2 by Judith O'Brien
8. The 1988 Annual World's Best SF edited by Donald A. Wollheim
9. A Vision of Modern Science: John Tyndall and the Role of the Scientist in Victorian Culture by Ursula DeYoung
10. The Man who would be King and Other Stories by Rudyard Kipling
11. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, adapted by Seymour Chwast

A decent number, especially consider Thanksgiving break and seminar paper season make November tough.  And Deronda was a three-week behemoth.

All books acquired:
1. Heart and Science: A Story of the Present Time by Wilkie Collins
2. Faction Paradox: A Romance in Twelve Parts edited by Stuart Douglas & Lawrence Miles
3. (The Best of) Shooty Dog Thing by Paul Castle and… Jon Arnold, Elizabeth Burak, Lawrence Burton, Lee Catigen-Cooper, Danielle Ellison, Terry Francis, James Gent, Angela Giblin, Stephen Gray, James Hadwen, Tim Hirst, Arfie Mansfield, Iain Martin, Nick Mellish, Patrick Mulready, Wesley Osam, Richard Parker, Erik Pollitt, and James Powell
4. Iris Wildthyme: The Panda Book of Horror edited by Stuart Douglas and Paul Magrs
5. Enter Wildthyme by Paul Magrs
6. Star Trek: Seven Deadly Sins by Dayton Ward & Kevin Dilmore, David A. McIntee, James Swallow, Keith R.A. DeCandido, Britta Burdett Dennison, Marc D. Giller, and Greg Cox
7. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain by Nicholas Carr
8. Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach
9. Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by Nick Lane
10. The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould
11. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
12. Narbonic: The Perfect Collection: Book One by Shaenon K. Garrity
13. Narbonic: The Perfect Collection: Book Two by Shaenon K. Garrity
14. The Annotated Wizard of Oz: Centennial Edition by L. Frank Baum, edited by Michael Patrick Hearn
15. News from Nowhere, or An Epoch of Rest, Being Some Chapters from a Utopian Romance by William Morris
16. The Wood Beyond the World by William Morris
17. Agent Q, or The Smell of Danger!: A Pals in Peril Tale by M. T. Anderson
18. The Norumbegan Quartet, Volume 2: The Suburb Beyond the Stars by M. T. Anderson
19. Thirsty by M. T. Anderson

This actually brings me back to even on "reading balance," so I can't get any books this month (theoretically), but I'm not in the negative.  #1-6 were what I got for having a positive balance last month.  #7-11 and 14-16 were all free stuff from the publishing reps at the Freshman English Book Fair.  (And how awesome is #14!)  And #17-19 I bought when seeing M. T. Anderson two nights ago.

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 363

M. T. Anderson and Reading Widely: Half of a Manifesto, Maybe

So last night, I saw one of my favorite authors, M. T. Anderson, speak at Eastern Connecticut State University here in Willimantic.  Anderson is a children's/YA writer, but he's absolutely one of my favorites, maybe in my top five ever.  (Who else is in that top five?  Good question.)  I saw him speak at UConn back in 2008, but I couldn't pass up another opportunity, and I convinced Hayley to go along with me.  (Hayley actually really likes him too, so I just needed to tip the scales against going to her Tuesday evening class.)

One of the things I like about him is his diversity of voice-- this is a guy who can write all sorts of things.  My introduction to him was Whales on Stilts, the first book in the Pals in Peril series, a satire on formula series fiction, aimed at 10-12 year olds.  But he's also written Feed, a gorgeous if slightly problematic dystopia aimed at teenagers, and the Octavian Nothing duology, set during the Revolutionary War and really capturing the prose style of the era (maybe too well) in what almost seems like a dark fantasy, but turns out to be something very different.  And he has other stuff I've yet to read, but even within the Pals in Peril books he shows a diversity of style.  But he's not just diverse-- he's very very good.  Feed is moving at the same time it satirizes contemporary consumer culture; it contains an extraordinary passage that recreates the drama, the facileness, and the beauty of teenage love.  (I actually taught Feed to my Freshman English class this summer, and some of them even liked it, but I completely forgot to pass on the announcement to them.  Whoops.)

He spoke for about 45 minutes and then took questions.  Some of what he said, I knew already, but that was fine.  Much of what he said was funny, and that was good.  He's also clearly very intelligent, and very imaginative, in the best of ways, able to take idle wonderings and transform them into universal sentiments.  Even Whales on Stilts, where mind-controlled whales on mechanical stilts with laser eyes invaded the continental United States, has one of my favorite statements on friendship.  He's had a good career, and he's one of those rare authors I just don't like or love; in some ways, I wish I could have written his books.  Hayley and I brought two books to be signed, and bought three more there.  While he signed all five to both of us (after a debate over whose books they were), Hayley talked with him about the beauty of Linnaeus's scientific writing while I tried to be cool and name-dropped Erasmus Darwin ineffectively.

One of the things he said that impressed me most, even though I've heard it elsewhere before, is that one of the best things an author can do is read widely.  I did like how he said it though, which was different: (paraphrasing from memory here) "Go into the bookstore and look.  Every book there is someone's favorite.  Read it and find out why.  If you don't like science fiction, read a science fiction book.  Read a romance novel.  If there's How to Play the Tuba, that's someone's favorite book.  Why is that?  What speaks to them?"

I think this is what irks me about some of the genre and tie-in fiction I read-- it reads like it's written by someone who only reads other genre and/or tie-in fiction.  (And one Shakespeare play, a Dan Brown novel, and a book of profound quotations.)  M. T. Anderson's work doesn't.  It's enmeshes in a large, complicated world, and this is shown in overt and subtle ways.  The third thrilling Pals in Peril tale, Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware, is not just a send-up of children's books about people on adventures in dinosaur-infested "exotic" lands in Africa/South America, but it also exposes (subtly but very effectively) the way that European travel fiction can render the "other" and make a "foreign" landscape into something to be dominated by a colonial observer.  And then it makes fun of people who know about all these problems and try to seek an "authentic" experience in foreign countries!  He's not only read his Richard Burton, Frank Reade Jr., and Edward Said, he's read his Stuff White People Like, and he's engaged with all of the above in interesting ways.  Even if you don't recognize the references, I think you still absorb something.  And even if you don't, there's still a fight scene where pacifist monks defeat an army of gangsters with haikus.

I try to read widely myself, as best I can.  I can't say I read How to Play the Tuba or Harlequin romances, but this month I read:
- a cultural criticism Doctor Who episode guide
- two YA Spider-Man novels
- two Victorian writers, George Eliot and Wilkie Collins
- a Doctor Who tie-in based in part on Beowulf (someone else has read widely)
- a 1988 sf anthology
- a critical analysis of the philosophy of a Victorian scientist
- a Rudyard Kipling collection
- a graphic novel adaptation of The Canterbury Tales

Obviously some of this reading is more wide than others, and the requirements of coursework and my fetish for Doctor Who and serialized comic books conspire to constrain me somewhat, but I try pretty hard.  When I was writing the acknowledgements page for A Choice of Catastrophes, I briefly considered listing every author whose book I had read while working on it (I thought better fairly rapidly) because I knew and could point to ways in which David N. Wilson, Barry Unsworth, Jim Starlin, Doris Lessing, Margaret Wander Bonanno, Paul Cornell, and Geoff Ryman had all influenced what I had come up, large and small, positive and negative.  (Of course, it's a book in which Captain Kirk gets into a fist fight with an octopus, and a continuity conundrum about Mister Leslie's name is resolved by referencing a 1975 Peter Pan record, so let's not get too grandiose.)

One of my friends got to chat with M. T. Anderson for ten minutes about Cotton Mather and was invited to e-mail him, of which I suspect I will be eternally jealous.  But I forgot my copies of Burger Wuss and Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware, so I will be seeking him down again for sure.  And you know, he might read Edward Said, but he's also the man who the Governor of Delaware called "buster" in formal correspondence.

29 November 2011

Pulling out the Red Notebook Again

The New York Trilogy
by Paul Auster

The stories in here are, I think, increasingly less successful, but they're all very good. "City of Glass" is the first and the best: a riveting tale of a man losing identity with an ending that makes you think you can almost put the whole thing together, though you never quite manage it. (Thankfully.) "Ghosts" is also quite good, the tale of a private detective with a strange assignment to simply watch someone else, which leads to the disintegration of his own identity. This one is fun in a morose way, if that makes any sense. "The Locked Room" is the least interesting, perhaps because it's the most grounded, and consequently, it's not possible to project yourself onto the characters to the same extent as the others. Still, it has its moments-- and what moments they are.

It's easy to complain about Paul Auster that he doesn't make any sense, but that misses the point entirely: these are stories about a world that doesn't make any sense, and there's no other way to confront it.

28 November 2011

Drawing in the Red Notebook

City of Glass
by Paul Auster
adaptation by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli

This past spring, I taught my students Paul Auster's "City of Glass" (I forced them to apply Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics to it, defying all reason), instilling in me a desire to 1) reread the graphic novel adaptation and 2) reread the rest of The New York Trilogy. So, ages later, I finally did both.

I like Paul Auster, but I find his brilliance difficult to put into words; with this graphic adaptation of the first volume of The New York Trilogy, the problem is even more difficult. All of this is appropriate, of course, for a story where the main theme is the inability (or unreliability) of language to capture truth. When I first read this comic back in 2006, I hadn't yet read the prose novel; upon reading the prose novel some months later, I could not find anything in it that had been subtracted for the comic. Furthermore, the addition of a visual dimension meant that there was a whole new layer of meaning.

All I can do, then, is praise Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli's artwork; their simple, stark style suits the narrative perfectly, and their use of transitions between panels is astounding, showing a complete mastery of the comics medium. City of Glass is heavy with meaning in the best of ways.

25 November 2011

Which The Next Generation Film is "The Bad One," Anyway?

Fade In: From Idea to Final Draft: The Writing of Star Trek: Insurrection
by Michael Piller

This is, as far as I know, one of the most honest and straightforward books published about the making of Star Trek, especially from the productions of the last couple decades. (I was going to write "last few years," but then I realized that Insurrection came out thirteen years ago!) Piller, the sole screenwriter for Insurrection, takes the reader through the process of writing the ninth Star Trek film, from the moment Rick Berman called him and asked him if he wanted the job, to the moment he watched the film premiere on screen. Insurrection is one of three problematic The Next Generation films, and for that reason, its creation makes for an interesting read. Piller includes a lot of treatments and dialogue extracts to show how the story changed over time. Even from the beginning, the story never quite worked, and it seems like lots of people know this... but no one knows how to solve it.

The problem, I think, ultimately comes down to the central conflict. The hook of the film is that Picard must figure out what made Data go rogue. Or rather, this should be the hook. It can't be the hook, though, because it ends up having a really dull answer: he malfunctioned. If Piller and company had been willing to pursue this more and create a Picard/Data conflict that had some actual teeth to it, we would have had a much more interesting story. Butting up against this, though, is the desire to make Insurrection more lighthearted, a return to The Voyage Home style of Star Trek... only no one can figure out how to actually make it funny, or make the humor work with the content. A lot of the book is Piller receiving notes from various people: producer Rick Berman, the actors (especially Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner), the Paramount execs. It's very noticeable that everyone is thoroughly committed to making a quality film, and indeed, most of the comments Piller gets are spot on... but the fixes he comes up with feel more like patches than solutions. Everyone agrees that the Fountain of Youth idea doesn't really work, but rather than toss it, Piller just tweaks it. Insurrection has a good idea at its heart, but the story needed a fundamental reworking that it never got. Piller praises Berman and company for never taking the film out of his hands, letting it ultimately remain the work of a single writer, but what you end up wondering is if the whole thing could have benefited from someone else doing a strong rewrite. But then poor Piller, who clearly gives his utmost to the project.

There are a lot of nice moments we never got to see, including the people of the Federation itself showing up at the end to protect its ideals, a moment of Gene Roddenberry utopianism that I think would have really shined if there had been a way to make it work within the context of the script as a whole.

That said, Fade In is an enjoyable insight into the writing process, nearly the Star Trek version of the Doctor Who tell-all The Writer's Tale. Piller fills the book with interesting anecdotes and insights into what make the writing process work, especially in a place as fraught with competing interests as Hollywood. The book is no longer available from TrekCore, but I recommend getting hold of an e-copy if you're interested in how Star Trek does get or has gotten made.

23 November 2011

Faster than a DC Bullet: Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, Part VII: Mary Jane 2

Mary Jane 2
by Judith O'Brien
illustrations by Mike Mayhew

Even though Gwen Stacy preceded Mary Jane Watson in the original Spider-Man comics, it seems to be a law of Spider-Man adaptations that Gwen only shows up once Mary Jane and Peter Parker are ready to get together, as that's how it happens here, in the Sam Raimi films, and in Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane. Of course, Gwen's arrival makes our already insecure Mary Jane even more insecure, one of many subplots struggling for dominance in this unfocused novel. Unfortunately, the most prominent plotline is also the most contrived, with the narrative dumping on MJ unbelievably hard-- and then resolving that problem unbelievably easily. I liked the first book okay, but struggled to enjoy this one. (Even the pictures aren't as good; clearly no one told Mike Mayhew that 1) Peter's not wearing his glasses anymore and 2) the book takes place during the winter.)

22 November 2011

Faster than a DC Bullet: Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, Part VI: Mary Jane

Mary Jane
by Judith O'Brien
illustrations by Mike Mayhew

A friend of mine who studies children's and YA literature mentioned the term "teen issue novel" the other day (while bemoaning them), which is an apt description for this book. We see the very beginning of the Spider-Man saga through Mary Jane's eyes-- while Mary Jane also deals with anorexia, an absent father, and a semi-abusive mother's boyfriend. All that plus she's starting a new school and Harry Osborn is coming onto her and she's been reunited with Peter Parker, who was her lab partner in fourth grade, long ago. It's too much, and it doesn't fit together tonally all the time: a subplot about evil energy drinks just jars with the more serious material. Plus, the serious material isn't always handled well: Mary Jane's descent into anorexia feels plausible to me, but the way it stops definitely isn't. There's definitely some stuff to like in this book, especially the depiction of Peter and MJ meeting as kids, and again as high schoolers, but this conceit was executed much better in Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane than it is here. (Mike Mayhew's pictures are gorgeous, though.)

21 November 2011

Faster than a DC Bullet: Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, Part V: Sophomore Jinx

Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane: Sophomore Jinx

Writer: Terry Moore
Art: Craig Rousseau
Colors: Guillem Mari
Letters: Dave Sharpe

From its first page, Sophomore Jinx has a different tone and voice than the previous volumes of Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane; new writer Terry Moore introduces the device of Mary Jane narrating the book. The whole thing instantly feels different. Not in a bad way... but it's not what drew me to the series to begin with. The transition isn't assisted by the myriad discontinuities between volumes. Mary Jane and company were at least sophomores before, if not juniors; now they're starting sophomore year. Flash Thompson was star quarterback; now we're told he warmed the benches all last year. Mary Jane had a job in a clothing store (among many other places); now she's never had one. All of the recurring characters have vanished. Worst of all, the series left off in November or so; now it's the following August, yet the characters' emotional lives don't seem to have changed at all.

The main plot of the book, MJ discovering that someone's made a website devoted to mocking her, is no worse than any of the goofy plots that ran under McKeever's pen, but without his fun dialogue and Miyazawa's fun art, there's nothing to sell it, and so it falls flat. Plus, five issues go by and MJ and Peter's relationship hardly changes. (Under McKeever, it'd've changed five times.) I can see why the series cut off at this point. It's all right, but it's got nowhere near the charm that it used to. The McKeever/Miyazawa run is good enough for me.

18 November 2011

Faster than a DC Bullet: Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, Part IV: Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, Vol. 2

Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, Vol. 2

Writer: Sean McKeever
Art: Valentine De Landro, Takeshi Miyazawa, David Hahn, with Rick Mays
Colors: Christina Strain
Letters: Dave Sharpe

This picks up right where Super Crush left off, with the arrival of new girl Gwen Stacey at the exact moment that Mary Jane Watson decides to tell Peter Parker that she has feelings for him. But first, events are interrupted by a two-part story called "The Origin Thing," where MJ discusses the events of a year ago with Liz Allan, the events that led to her losing her carefree attitude. The flashback format lets regular artist Takeshi Miyazawa take a break while Valentine De Landro fills in. The story of the flashback is kinda weird-- MJ is dumped, so she turns goth, but then she decides that she's not a goth, so she just goes back to normal-- but De Landro's presence makes the whole thing terrible. Putting characters in the hands of a different artist is like recasting characters on a television show: even though the dialogue is the same, the delivery is completely different. Things just don't sound right coming out of these characters' mouths. It doesn't help that De Landro draws some ferociously ugly art... especially at moments where the characters are supposed to be smiling and attractive!

Thankfully, things are soon back to normal, with Mary Jane, Gwen, Liz, Peter, Flash, Harry, and Spider-Man rotating affections in their usual complicated dance; by the end of this volume I'm pretty sure we've seen every possible permutation of male/female pairings. I feel like it shouldn't work, but it does; just flipping through the pages now to remind myself of what happened, I have a strong sense of affection for the story-- and those heartbreak moments (like where MJ sees Gwen kissing Peter) are always killer. There's more Spider-Man in this volume than in the previous ones, too, especially his ongoing battle with the prosaically named "the Looter," the climax to which was hilarious and fantastic. The issue where Gwen relates a Spider-Man/Sandman battle in flashback is also great, even if we have to put up with another fill-in artist: McKeever puts Gwen's rendition of the dialogue in the balloons, such as, "Hi, I'm Peter Parker? And I act like I like you? But now I'm totally gonna ditch you without warning for no reason whatsoever."

Other things are silly, though, like a subplot about the football players considering wrecking the school play. And of course MJ continues to be the best at everything ever without even trying; the entire male population of the school falls in love with her after her play performance. The bit where a writer for the school paper tries to get Harry and MJ to explain why they are such big flirts is also weird, though it has some nice moments. I do like that the MJ-is-so-popular subplot gives us some moments of vulnerability from our often-invulnerable heroine.

Things go as they do for most of the book, until the last third, when Miyazawa departs permanently, David Hahn takes over. Hahn is okay. I suffered from the dialogue-just-sounded-wrong problem again, but since he's there for five issues, I was able to get used to it eventually. (Except for his weird eyes.) Firestar comes back, which is one of the best plots in the whole series: she attempts to put the moves on Spider-Man, not Peter Parker, at a moment where he's feeling particularly vulnerable. Meanwhile, Harry Osborn is receiving advice from his evil father on how to win MJ to himself forever; he alternates between seeming manipulative and seeming like he genuinely wants to be with MJ. The Felicia Hardy subplot isn't so great, but on the whole, the end of the book comes together very nicely, just in time for Sean McKeever to jump ship too!

16 November 2011

Sapphire and Steel Have Been Assigned

Sapphire and Steel
by P. J. Hammond

The spookiness of Sapphire & Steel came from the visuals and mood more than anything else, and so Peter Hammond is at a disadvantage in this novelisation of the first television story, given that he's not exactly the world's greatest prose stylist. It's still good, though-- the first story was always the best Sapphire & Steel tale-- and Hammond is able to make up for the lack of visual and auditory cues by entirely filtering the story through the perspective of Rob, the young boy whose parents have been swallowed up by Time. Never since have Sapphire and Steel been so utterly unknowable.

14 November 2011

My Last Visit to Damar

A Knot in the Grain and Other Stories
by Robin McKinley

Last summer I read Robin McKinley's two novels of Damar, The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, and I enjoyed the former a lot, though I was ambivalent about the latter. The "About the Author" blurb of The Blue Sword promises that it is the first of many novels about Damar, but in fact, no more ever appeared. There is, however, this collection of five short stories, four of which take place in Damar, or at least on the same fantasy world. (One character from the novels shows up in two of the stories, though he is not really one of my favorites.)

I feel like I have high standards for children's/YA fantasy with female protagonists; I don't like it when the protagonists seem ineffectual or incidental, or if they're empowered in a way I find over simplistic, or if too much emphasis is placed on their relationships to men. (All of these are my problems with Tamora Pierce's Tortall novels.) I don't think I have these same standards for YA fantasy about boys, but then, I don't think I read much of that, either. Anyway, this is a long way of saying that three of the five stories in A Knot in the Grain and Other Stories fail those standards, and so I don't like them, but I don't know if ideology is a good reason to dislike a story. But I'd like to think that these are just bad stories. Bizarrely, obnoxiously bad.

The first two stories, "The Healer" and "The Stagman" are almost the same. The protagonist is a girl in difficulty ("The Healer" features a mute; "The Stagman" a princess about to murdered by her uncle), then the girl is rescued by something/one supernatural (a traveling mage; a stagman), then the girl is taken to the realm of Luthe (who also appeared in The Hero and the Crown), then the girl hangs out there for a while, then she goes home and gets married to a man she met while hanging out with Luthe. That's it? Neither character overcomes any danger or obstacle herself; in fact, in "The Stagman," the army to overthrow her uncle is raised by her soon-to-be-husband while she is content to do nothing! The girl in "The Healer" is healed by Luthe with no risk to herself, preempting what could be a potentially interesting story about someone who's never spoken learning to speak, while the overthrow of the uncle happens in passing in "The Stagman," I don't find either very inspiring or interesting.

The third story, "Tauk's House," is no better. A witch takes a newborn girl from a poor family as payment, she raises the girl alongside her half-troll son (who is seventeen years older!), the girl grows up and walks to a far-off kingdom where she heals a prince, and then she walks back and marries the troll. So what? Is there even a plot? I don't know if it's because McKinley is trying to work in a fairy tale aesthetic, but in fact, fairy tales do not conform to contemporary notions of plotting, and neither do these boring tales.

Thankfully, things picked up with the fourth story, "Buttercups," which is where the beautiful cover image comes from. It's about a hardworking farmer and the woman he marries and the strange force residing beneath a hill on their farm. The characters are engaging, the themes are interesting, the prose is excellent, and the magic is lurking-- I really liked this one. The story kind of just stops at one point, but in a literary way that makes you think you've learned something. (I am pretty sure that that is true.)

The last story is, unusually, set in the 1990s, when it was written. "A Knot in the Grain" is the tale of a girl moving across the state and adjusting. It's full of nice details, showing the thoughts and feelings of someone adjusting to change and the coming of adulthood. I particularly liked how McKinley used the books the protagonist was reading to tell us stuff; she reads Diana Wynn Jones, The Last Unicorn, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Charles Dickens, and even Mistress Masham's Repose. It could be a piece of nongenre fiction, almost, but there is magic, which is subtle, but disconcerting and powerful. Again, the ending is kinda off, but overall I liked it a lot.

I'm glad to have read both "Buttercups" and "A Knot in the Grain," but frustrated at the rest of the stories here. I don't know that I'll be reading more McKinley after this; my experiences have been too mixed, and I'm not really interested by all the fairy tale retellings anyway.

09 October 2011

Faster than a DC Bullet: Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, Part III: Super Crush

Comic digest, n.pag.
Published 2006 (contents: 2005-06)

Borrowed from the library
Read October 2011
Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane: Super Crush

Writer: Sean McKeever
Artist: Takeshi Miyazawa
Colors: Christina Strain
Letters: Dave Sharpe

Perhaps because his name is in the title now, Spider-Man, along with his alter ego, Peter Parker, is in Super Crush much more than the previous volumes of the series. This is a good thing, since it is his presence that stops this from being a typical high school relationship drama. After the devastating events of Homecoming, Mary Jane has distanced herself from her friends, which means she's hanging out much more with nerdy Peter Parker, who's been tutoring her. Ahem. Also she's joined the drama club, and guess what? She's the best at drama ever. Okay, I get it, MJ is wonderful, let's let her have some flaws beyond her inability to cope with her own wonderfulness.

Between boyfriends, Mary Jane resolves to pursue Spider-Man more doggedly than ever, not that Peter thinks this is a good idea. There's some silly stuff about a jealous girl in drama club, but that leads to some excellent scenes where Peter and Liz team up to help Mary Jane without letting her know she's being helped. It all culminates in a frankly devastating scene where Mary Jane, on her way to her long-awaited date with Spider-Man, brushes right past Peter holding a rose and declaring his affection. Ouch. You feel for MJ because she can't get what she want, and you feel for Peter because he has the girl he wants, but he can't get her! Of course, the comic's ending makes it look like things are coming together... and then there's another wrinkle. Whoops, and I guess I gotta get the next volume ASAP.

As always, Miyazawa's art is great, and there is humor aplenty. My favorite was when Mary Jane recounts something Spider-Man said to a female superhero that she overheard: "...and then he's all, like, 'ooh, Heat Girl, you're so hot!"

Faster than a DC Bullet: Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, Part II: Homecoming

Comic digest, n.pag.
Published 2005 (contents: 2005)

Borrowed from the library
Read September 2011
Mary Jane: Homecoming

Writer: Sean McKeever
Art: Takeshi Miyazawa
Colors: Christina Strain
Letters: Dave Sharpe

Homecoming sees Homecoming come to Midtown High. As you might imagine. But on the way, there's more problems afoot in the world of Mary Jane, when she discovers that her boyfriend Harry is pressuring nerdy Peter Parker to help him cheat. This actually didn't work for me a whole lot, as I might have preferred Harry and Peter to have a better relationship than that. In the meantime, Liz Allan thinks her boyfriend Flash is cheating on her with MJ, which is untrue... except that Flash wants to be with Mary Jane! So there are lots of problems around. Homecoming doesn't work quite as well as its predecessor, which is because 1) the cheating thing doesn't ring true to the characters to me and 2) Mary Jane wins Homecoming Queen as a write-in over Liz, which pushes the "everyone loves Mary Jane and she is always great" thing a little bit too far. But McKeever and Miyazawa still excel at those emotional moments, big or small, that sell the book as "true," especially a quiet conversation between Mary Jane and Peter late at night and that excellent last page.